How Martin Scorsese’s ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ is changing life in a small community on the Kansas border

Illustration by Melanie Adlich

The wide brick street of downtown Cottonwood Falls, Kansas, is usually empty on week-days. So when two large white trucks slowly rolled to a stop in front of Rich and Denise Ullrich’s Tallgrass Antiques store this April, business transactions paused and a small crowd gathered. Movers carefully loaded the trucks with tables and chairs, wood stoves, bookcases, cupboards, beds, a wagon seat, office accessories, grocery store hanging scales, lamps and other household items. A few hours later, the cargo was heading south on scenic U.S. Route 177 toward I-35 and the Oklahoma state line, where it will be used in one of the most anticipated movies of this winter, Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon.

The movie, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro, is being filmed mostly in northeast Oklahoma, right along the Kansas line. The scale of the project sent set designers scurrying into the Flint Hills—Rich had responded to an inquiry on his Facebook page from a buyer looking for items dating to the early 1900s through the 1920s.

“I was pretty surprised when he picked out a roll of red and green linoleum,” Rich says. The trucks soon left for Pawhuska, Oklahoma, and the Osage Nation, where journalist David Grann’s book Killers of the Flower Moon takes place. The story focuses on the systematic murders of what were probably hundreds of Osage people and the work of a young J. Edgar Hoover to create what would become the FBI.

Oil was discovered on Osage land in 1897, making the tribe extremely wealthy. It nearly destroyed them. During the 1910s through 1930s, non-members greedy for oil money shot, poisoned and blew up with dynamite members of the Osage Nation. Headrights gave the Osage a legal grant to tribal land and its mineral wealth, but it could be inherited by non-Osage heirs.

Killers of the Flower Moon relates the tragic story of Mollie Burkhart, a full-blood Osage, whose headrights made her one of the wealthiest women in Oklahoma. In the early 1920s, her mother died of an odd wasting illness, and her sister Anna was found shot to death. Mollie’s other sister, Rita, and Rita’s husband, William Smith, were killed along with their housekeeper when their house exploded. Mollie was suffering from the same strange symptoms that claimed her mother when the Osage Tribal Council called for help from the U.S. Bureau of Investigation.

Geoffrey Standing Bear, Chief of the Osage Nations, says that at least five percent of his people were assassinated and more than half lost their wealth. Most murders were covered up, misreported or never investigated.

“My great-grandfather Fred Lookout was Chief during that time,” Chief Standing Bear says. “He hired outlaws—men who wouldn’t hesitate to kill—to protect our family.”

Standing Bear says he inherited his great-grandfather’s determination to protect the Osage people: “The world does have evil places and evil people. The biggest crime is complicity. Almost everyone went along with the murders.”

He has given every member of the Oklahoma legislature a copy of Killers of the Flower Moon and sent copies to the gov-ernor and the lieutenant governor. “I tell anyone who wants to do business with us that the book is required reading.”

He and Grann talked at length about his research. “It’s a story that is actually bigger than the Osage Nation,” Standing Bear says. “This was illustrated yesterday by a gentleman from California, a business prospect, who considers himself an educated man, and he had never heard this story. It made him think about what other stories all Americans should know about. I thought that was insightful of him.”

Standing Bear noted the irony of the great oil and gas companies such as Phillips, Conoco and Getty making billions of dollars from Osage land while many of his people are living in poverty.He was cautious when Scorsese first approached him several years ago about making the movie.

“I asked him several questions,” Standing Bear says. “What about our language? What about our culture? Well, the Scorsese team has hired our language and cultural experts, and they have also hired sixty of our people not only as extras but as actors with speaking roles. Also, about a hundred of our people are working in set design and construction, which is a real boost to their income.” The Osage do not own the rights to the movie, but Standing Bear is especially pleased that his people are making blankets and traditional clothing and will be able to show their craft skills to the world.

Standing Bear said that Scorsese was attracted to the book’s portrayal of evil that can be perfectly disguised. “Of course, Martin is a great storyteller, and he was fascinated that some Osage elders had told me that they knew William Hale, a prominent local rancher who became a prime suspect, and that he was always so friendly and helpful. “I guessed that Leo DiCaprio would play the part of Tom White, the federal agent investigating the case, but Mr. Scorsese said he had something else in mind, and so did Leo,” Standing Bear said. “Leo wanted to play the part of Ernest Burkhart, Mollie’s husband.” Eric Roth’s script emphasizes the terrible dichotomy of love and greed that destroyed so many lives.

“When I last met Mr. DiCaprio a few weeks ago—he’s a very quiet, very serious gentleman—and mentioned that he’s playing an extremely challenging part, he said that he wanted a very deep role,” Standing Bear says. “I asked him who would be playing William Hale and he said, ‘My friend Bob De Niro.’” Filming began at the end of April. Standing Bear has been watching the rebuilding of a train station in Pawhuska and the recreation of the town of Fairfax, Oklahoma, where the Reign of Terror occurred. The $200 million project will be released either in late 2021 or, more likely, early 2022.

Standing Bear wonders if the movie will encourage the return of the Osage people who “have scattered to the wind.”

“We’ve been driven to the edges of the world, the places no one else wanted,” Standing Bear said. “Kansas City used to be part of our territory. Now half of our twenty-three thousand people live outside Oklahoma, but we’re trying to bring everyone back home.”

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